Study: Ethics, values of sports reporters vary by beat

University Park, Pa. — Sports reporters on the high school beat, often the youngest and most inexperienced in the newsroom, also are the most likely to believe they can operate by more relaxed ethical codes than their counterparts, according to a new survey.

The telephone survey, conducted by researchers in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State, asked 263 reporters who cover sports at the high school, college or professional level about their attitudes toward ethical codes and professional norms for reporters.

More than one third of the reporters surveyed covered prep sports, and almost as many said they covered professional teams. Far fewer -- 14 percent -- said they covered college sports. Eighteen percent reported on several beats.

Researchers analyzed responses by beat and found that reporters covering high school sports were more likely than those on professional beats to advocate a more “relaxed” code of ethics for sports reporters than for other parts of the newsroom. Reporters covering high school sports also more often reported friendships with sources and endorsed home-team boosterism in stories than did those who covered pro teams.

At the same time, high school sports reporters were more likely to agree with the idea that sports journalism should work in a public-service, “watchdog” role.

Marie Hardin, an associate professor in the College of Communications at Penn State and associate director of research in the Curley Center, said the findings may reflect both the idealism and inexperience of reporters. Reporters covering high school sports had less journalism experience than those on other beats, and 65 percent of reporters on that beat were under 40.

“These reporters -- often the least experienced in a sports department -- also are the closest to their communities and face different types of ethical issues than do other sportswriters,” Hardin said. “Their jobs often are just as much about public education as they are about sports.”

Results of the survey, “Sports Reporters’ Attitudes About Ethics Vary Based on Beat,” by Hardin and Bu Zhong, an assistant professor in the College of Communications, are published in the spring 2010 issue of Newspaper Research Journal.

Other questions on the survey -- administered by students in COMM 412 Sports, Media and Society, one of the core class offerings of the Curley Center -- asked reporters about job satisfaction. Reporters covering prep sports less often said they had considered quitting their jobs. They also more often said they saw their career futures as bright.

“This could be a reflection of their age,” Hardin said. “They’re younger and more likely in a career-building stage.”

Their optimism may also reflect the perception that their beats are more secure than those at the professional or even college level, added Hardin. At those levels, travel costs and competition from a variety of sources -- including sports leagues -- is cutting into sports-department budgets.

“Meanwhile, the high school beat is a staple in sports sections, and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” Hardin said. “These journalists may understand the key role they play for their papers and in their communities."

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Last Updated June 15, 2010